ATLANTIC CITY - For years, there had been a steadfast mystique about Chef Vola's that, until recently, no one had been able to penetrate - unless he or she were one of the privileged people who had access to the unpublished phone number that might lead them to a reservation.
For those who weren't privy to the "secret" number, questions always remained. How do I get it? Who do you have to know to get it? Why do you have it, and I don't?
Forget about trying to find the place on your own, because without the phone number, you were out of luck.
You couldn't call to get the address, which is on a tiny side street in Atlantic City that you wouldn't know is there unless it was your destination.
As it turns out, the number is still unpublished in print but is readily available via a quick search on the Internet, a resource that will also give you driving directions. But reservations are still required.
Housed in the basement of an unmarked, old shore house, this eatery is very small and packed with regular patrons who have probably been dining there since before Google was just a glimmer in its inventors' eyes.
On the night that we went, with the address in hand, my guest and I knew we were in the right neighborhood as we followed an intense aroma that wafted down the block, taking us to the side entrance where a small brass plate saying Chef Vola's hung next to the door, its only marking.
Three steps down led to a tiny foyer, the gateway in to the restaurant's hubbub.
With a booming voice that permeated lots of loud, joyous chatter from customers, our waiter greeted us and recited a list of tantalizing specials so long that we found no reason to consider ordering entrees from the regular menu.
We did, however, choose two appetizers from the menu, but he warned us that the portions are so big we should reconsider and have one.
We took his advice and settled on the Tuscany Bean Salad ($15.95) for two, which was large enough for four and absolutely divine. A mound of crisp greens came studded with chunks of tomatoes, beets, canellini beans, crunchy string beans, imported salami, and substantial pieces of parmigiano reggiano cheese all simply tossed with olive oil and vinegar. Salads don't come better than this one.
We had to stop ourselves from eating it entirely (I had my eye on it to have for lunch the next day, and it was delicious, even though a little wilted).
While waiting for our dinners to arrive, we could have polished off an entire basket of homemade garlic crostini and sesame crusted Italian bread served with an ice-cream-scoop-sized dollop of butter. Judging by the salad and the huge meals passing by us, we restrained from doing so.
A bone-in veal chop parmesan ($36.95) was sliced through the middle, pounded, cooked francaise style and covered with the perfect amount of marinara and a layer of melted mozzarella. The meat was hearty, wonderfully tender and flavorsome. Typically, veal parmesan is made with thin medallions, which often get lost beneath too much sauce and cheese. This preparation allowed the veal to shine and was worth every cent of its price tag.
A side of penne bolognese ($9.95) made with ground sirloin and basil was lighter than most meat sauces we've had and pretty close to perfect.
Chicken milanese ($18.95), a pounded, francaise-style chicken breast, was equally tender and scrumptious topped with baby arugula, a thick slice of raw tomato and uncooked fresh mozzarella. I had some trouble with the orange-balsamic glaze drizzled over this dish. Its sweetness took me by surprise, but not in the best way. It didn't mesh with the other ingredients, which were otherwise spot on.
Sweetness owned its rightful place when it came time for desserts (the majority of them are made lovingly in-house). Warm ricotta cheesecake ($8.95) with chunky strawberry sauce was mouthwatering. I had never before tasted heated cheesecake. It took a few bites to adapt, but before I knew it, the whole thing was gone. The tiramisu ($8.95), classically prepared with espresso and mascarpone cheese, was utterly dreamy.
The ambience is nothing more than a minimally decorated room fitted with a crowd of enthusiastic diners and a seasoned staff who work closely together to deliver casual but great service. The noise level is high, and the tables sit practically against one another, but once you settle in and become part of the commotion, it feels completely comfortable.
The once-coveted phone number is merely the means to get there. It's clear that the food, in all of its bountiful glory, is the reason that folks return again and again.
(Taylor Yarborough is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Yarborough c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
111 S. Albion Place
Hours: Tuesday thru Sunday, 5:30 until closing
Liquor license: BYO
Wheelchair accessible: No
Credit cards: Cash only
Price range: Appetizers $5.95 to $17.95; entrees $12.95 to $37.95
Our bill for two: $99 plus tip